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Rejoicing in hope a tribute to Kosuke Koyama.

Straight lines seemed to be an image of imperialism. I became aware that the love of God--hesed, agape--is more of a zigzag than a straight line. For the sake of others, love makes self-denying zigzags, displaying its power as it overcomes pro found frustration.--Kosuke Koyama

The earth-bound portion of Kosuke Koyama's "zigzagging" life came to an end on March 25, 2009. "Ko," as many knew him, died in Springfield, Massachusetts, at the age of seventy-nine. He had been battling esophageal cancer for several years, but the immediate cause of his death was pneumonia, according to his son, Mark, with whom Ko and his wife of fifty years, Lois, had recently been living.

Koyama was born in 1929 in Tokyo into a Christian family. His paternal grandfather had become a Christian around the turn of the century, and his father had followed him in Christian faith. Ko himself was baptized at age fifteen, in the midst of World War II. He often reflected through the years on the significance of this experience of being baptized into "the religion of the enemy." The pastor who baptized him, Ko recalled, told him that God loved the Americans as well as the Japanese. That became the heart of his ecumenical theology.

Ko lived through the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, in which 88,000 inhabitants were killed by those same Americans. The experience was to significantly shape his understanding of history, the idolatry of power, and the suffering of God. Following the war, he enrolled in Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, graduating in 1952. He then moved to New Jersey, in the United States, to complete his B.D. at Drew Theological School in 1954 and his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1959.

After graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther's interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by his home church, the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan), as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. Serving as a pastor in northern Thailand, he found himself in theological conversation not only with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth, who had been his interlocutors at Princeton, but also with the farmers who now made up his congregation. The result was "water buffalo theology," a term that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth-century contextual theologies.


Ko wrote several works in Thai during this period, but it was the English publication of Water Buffalo Theology--a collection of meditations and academic presentations from 1960 to 1968 that was first circulated in 1970 by SPCK and later published by Orbis Books (1974 and 1999)--that gained him widespread recognition. Other books in English followed: Fifty Meditations and Theology in Contact (1975), No Handle on the Cross (1977), Three-Mile-an-Hour God (1978), and Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai (1984). Koyama's bibliography included numerous articles and reviews as well, in English, Thai, and Japanese. Through arresting images and a profound sense of irony, he sought to move beyond rabid triumphalism and crusading ideology to realize in a fresh way what it means to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:5), which for Ko could only mean the crucified mind. His reflections were laced with wit, wisdom, candor, and copious biblical references, challenging his hearers and readers to move beyond the provincialism that too often passes for theological sophistication, in order to relate Christian faith to the diverse hopes and aspirations of human beings in their everyday world.

In 1968 he left Thailand for Singapore, where he became dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST), formed two years earlier. In 1974 he became senior lecturer in phenomenology of religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Six years later he accepted a call to Union Theological Seminary in New York to assume the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity and to serve as director of the Ecumenical Center, a project inaugurated by his predecessor at Union, Robert McAfee Brown. During his years at Union, Koyama brought together the disciplines of mission studies, ecumenical studies, and the study of world religions in creative and at times courageous ways. Long before many others in North America were talking about religious pluralism, Ko was teaching Christian seminarians that there was much they had to learn from the world's diverse religious traditions, and he was leading classes into neighborhoods of New York City to visit diverse religious communities that were flourishing there. Ko lived out this dialogue of religions in his own life, "dancing" (as he liked to say) between Buddhism and Christianity, or between eschatology and cosmology. He had an immense appreciation for Judaism and would often cite the impact of Buber and Heschel on his work. It was his deep appreciation for the God who was revealed on Mount Sinai that drew him back time and again to a God who, in a favored figure, was "hot." Toward the end of Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai he wrote: "At the depth of history there is the 'agitated mind of God' which judges all forms of idolatries. The one who judges history is the one who is most involved in history. This God whose emotions are agitated all together is salvation to us who engage in dancing between God and Baal in this historical hour."

Koyama felt the pulse of resurgence of Christianity around the world at a time when others were skeptical about its future and even of the prospects of religion in general in the West. He brought a largeness of heart, mind, and soul to bear on urgent issues confronting world Christianity and the ecumenical movement as they were living through the decolonization of the latter twentieth century. At a time when many had no inkling regarding the importance of Christian voices outside the Western hemisphere, Koyama urged his listeners to take seriously the challenge of contextualization as it reshaped the Good News Christians had for the world. Christianity cannot be one-way traffic, he argued, but, aligned with the agenda of the crucified Christ, must follow him to the peripheries of history. He urged all who would listen to exemplify the virtues that were embodied by Jesus, becoming disciples who were also neighbors.

An African proverb states that "borrowed garments never fit a person well, they are usually either too tight or too loose; proper fitting is achieved when one wears one's own clothing." Koyama wore his theological garment very well, and it fitted him properly and snugly. We give glory to God for his life. We celebrate his intercultural, interconfessional, and interreligious theological contributions and imagination. And we look forward to talking with him again at the banquet table where he always taught that we would one day be seated.

Dale T. Irvin is Professor of World Christianity and President of New York Theological Seminary.

Akintunde E. Akinade teaches world religions at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
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Author:Irvin, Dale T.; Akinade, Akintunde E.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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